My grandfather was mustard-gassed in the trenches in the First World War. It may not have been at The Somme; we never asked, and he never talked about it.
But when he died 45 years later, the doctors said mustard gas was the cause (I was 14, so a bit young to understand).
When he got back from the war he threw himself into the Union movement. As a bus driver he’d leave the house at 5am. Every afternoon around 2.30 he’d be back. Out would come the account leger of the local Transport & General Workers’ Union and he’d bring them up to date. In a neat and lovely hand he would record all new membership dues and other costs and revenues of the local chapter.
Then he might have a meeting in our ‘front room’ (which was generally used only at Christmas) with some poor bugger who’d been sacked, or needed help because he was sick.
A man named Adolf
Of course, between WW1 and me being born, a bloke called Hitler had turned up. Twenty one years between the end of one World War and the beginning of another. How did these people cope?
My mother, my sister and I lived in my grandfather’s rented house behind the Royal Hospital in Wolverhampton. It was condemned 20 years before I was born. One night, as they were sleeping, the ceiling fell in on grandad’s and nan’s bed.
The toilet was outside in the back yard, beyond the coal shed – just to instil a sense of priorities. There was one cold water tap. It fed into the sink in what we called the ‘scullery’ – a brick-faced room, blackened with some preparation I never saw. That’s where the washing and the cooking went on.
Grandad shaved with a cut-throat razor, using the mirror over the fireplace. A cup of boiling water, the shaving soap and a brush were routinely placed on the mantelpiece. Hanging on the side of the glass-fronted bureau that took up practically one-eighth of the main room was a leather strap for sharpening the razor.
This was the life that his generation had left behind when they went off to war; a life of poverty and hard work and precious little comfort. And it’s what they came back to. Yet they felt there was a better life out there, and they really, really worked to bring it into being. My generation was the beneficiary.
The five o’clock ‘shadow’
My Uncle Jack and Uncle Frank were the next generation. They only had one world war to deal with. And they were more modern. In fact, Uncle Frank was practically a trailblazer in the shaving stakes.
Back then you could buy razor blades of varying thinness to avoid ‘five o’clock shadow’ or ‘six o’clock shadow’. If you shaved before going to work in the morning, you could comfortably get beyond five- or six-o-clock in the evening before you needed to shave again. Oh yes! Two shaves in one day.
Another strong memory is gentian violet. At the first sign of a cough or a snuffle, out would come the little bottle and a fine artist’s paintbrush. “Open wide,” grandad would command, and then he’d ‘paint’ our throats with this preparation which, I now discover, is still listed by the World Health Organisation for its topical antiseptic properties.
All of this went on in one room. The TGWU books were done at the kitchen table, which was in the middle of the room. At one end was grandad’s chair; at the other was Uncle Jack’s. Under the window in the corner was a small armchair. On the other side of the fireplace was a wooden armchair. Today it would seem intolerably small and crowded. But what did we know?
The devil in the radio
Seven of us – me, my sister, our mother, grandad, nan, Uncle Jack and Uncle Frank – lived in this room mostly. This is where the radio was. It was the room where I first heard The Goons, where I was raised on a diet of Two Way Family Favourites, Housewives’ Choice and Mrs Dale’s Diary. And where I first heard Heartbreak Hotel and truly believed the devil was in the radio.
Grandad missed The Beatles, which was just as well. He would have found the Sixties all too decadent. They didn’t truly start, the actual Sixties, till 1963, the year he died. But days like yesterday, 100 years since The Battle Of The Somme began, it’s worth remembering what that generation went through. It might just help us to get our current problems in perspective.